This a truly strange book that I somehow couldn’t put down. A very dark story, it’s the antithesis of Hollywood though it’s set in L.A.
Reading The Paper Wasp was a little like watching film noir. You don’t really understand what it’s about and you arrive at the end none the wiser but somehow you can’t take your eyes off of it. It’s like being pulled into a bizarre walking dream. But then isn’t that what we read books and watch films to achieve? A waking dream state?
This book is… it is something. A good something, a strange something, a profound something, and a compulsively readable something.
What it’s about
In small-town Michigan, Abby Graven leads a solitary life. Once a bright student on the cusp of a promising art career, she now languishes in her childhood home, trudging to and from her job as a supermarket cashier. Each day she is taunted from the magazine racks by the success of her former best friend Elise, a rising Hollywood starlet whose life in pictures Abby obsessively scrapbooks. At night Abby escapes through the films of her favorite director, Auguste Perren, a cult figure known for his creative institute the Rhizome. Inspired by Perren, Abby draws fantastical storyboards based on her often premonitory dreams, a visionary gift she keeps hidden.
When Abby encounters Elise again at their high school reunion, she is surprised and warmed that Elise still considers her not only a friend but a brilliant storyteller and true artist. Elise’s unexpected faith in Abby reignites in her a dormant hunger, and when Elise offhandedly tells Abby to look her up if she’s ever in LA, Abby soon arrives on her doorstep. There, Abby discovers that although Elise is flourishing professionally, behind her glossy magazine veneer she is lonely and disillusioned. Ever the supportive friend, Abby becomes enmeshed in Elise’s world, even as she guards her own dark secret and burning desire for greatness. As she edges closer to Elise, the Rhizome, and her own artistic ambitions, the dynamic shifts between the two friends—until Abby can see only one way to grasp the future that awaits her.
More thoughts on The Paper Wasp
The entire story is told in second person point-of-view, which adds to the surreal atmosphere. It’s as though Abby is telling Elise the story of her own life after the fact. It works very well, given that Abby is so obsessed with Elise that she can’t conceive of her own life without Elise’s influence.
The opening passages are very creepy and I was half convinced this was going to be a story of one woman stalking another. But then the strangest thing happened. Abby connects with Elise again and Elise seems quite thrilled to be the object of Abby’s complete fixation. She basks in her friend’s adulation and feeds off of it.
A few of my favourite bits
Before things got really quite dark, it occurred to me that Elise is the gushing, overenthusiastic friend that everyone needs in their life. She tells Abby, with no real evidence for her opinion:
“Oh, you’ll be working on real films soon, I know you will. I always had faith in you.”
I’ll leave you with this scene, which I’m pretty sure Acampora must have written just to torture us poor bookworms and make us hate the ever-shallow Elise:
We reached the top of the stairs and went into a room lined with books.
“Obviously I haven’t read them all. In fact I haven’t really read any of them. I chose them mostly for how the spines looked.”
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Disclosure: I received this book from the publisher for the purpose of review. This post contains affiliate links.